Fable: How To Miss A Revolution

60 years ago a company was founded to make small, but powerful, computers.

In 1970 it sold 600,000 of them.

The company became the second largest employer in the State of Massachusetts.

One of the company’s engineering teams managed to get all the guts of a computer into a format the size of a TV.

The team showed it to the board, suggesting it could be sold to consumers.

The CEO declared he could see no reason why anyone should want to have a computer in their home.

Later on the company was sold off – to a personal computer company.

Moral. Watch Out



  1. Plessey bought a DEC VAX for £250,000 in 1985.

    5 years later they ‘wrote it off’ for 50 pence !!!!

  2. Ken Olsen: “UNIX is snake oil!”


  3. Didn’t Ken also pull the rug from under his engineers’ feet when DEC launched CAN bus into the industrial networking market in the 1980s by saying during the presentation that it wouldn’t succeed?

  4. DEC also built large powerful computers in the late 60s and the 70s – the PDP 10. Magnificent beast that intitiated time sharing revolution. Teletypes for data entry and programming made it possible to work from your desk and not traipse yards or miles to the data entry room or the line printer room. But the VAX made them obselete almost overnight

  5. Yes SEPAM VAX was a legend – loved by everyone

  6. At least DEC left us a *very* nice HQ building… 😉

  7. Wise words Steve. However did ARM come to eat Intel’s mobile dinner? However did Nokia come to eat Motorola’s handset dinner? However did Apple eat Nokia’s dinner? However did Wintel eat IBM’s PC dinner? It’s always the same reason, as you say, because of closed minds and blind eyes at the top.

  8. DEC’s success story is an amazing one, an extremely valuable case study, and a valuable cautionary tale all at the same time. First, DEC undercuts the “big iron” guys by developing and aggressively promoting minicomputers. The company excels in extending minicomputer product families, adding new ones, and pushing these “little iron” boxes into all sorts of new applications. They work their products all the way up to the industry’s trend-setting VAX family. It’s a truly classic Clayton Christensen “Innovator’s Dilemma” story. Then, when microprocessors make microcomputers and then PCs possible, DEC’s Olson turns a blind eye until it’s far too late. He cannot envision being undercut by those puny microprocessors. Classic Clayton Christensen deja vu all over again, but with the reverse twist. In tech, your babies will be eaten. The only question is, “who will be the diner?”

    • SecretEuroPatentAgentMan

      I remember we had a VAX cluster at the University. Uptime was pretty good.

    • “DEC’s Olson turns a blind eye until it’s far too late. He cannot envision being undercut by those puny microprocessors”

      It wasn’t just Olsen struggling with this notion within DEC. See Bob Supnik’s comments on NVAX versus Aridus/Aquarius: http://simh.trailing-edge.com/semi/nvax.html

      The Baron

      (On the bright side, the rise of the killer micros did mean that 20 years back I picked up my own VAX-11/750
      with stack of 3 Fujitsu eagle clones for just over 50 quid. Yeah, your contemporary little 486 or Pentium box
      would have trounced it, but my 200kg zaftig queen of Nigella-esque electronic beauty would – literally – crush
      your little plastic box to dust! And I could play genuine rogue 5.3 under BSD 4.3 while heating a few rooms…)

  9. Spot on, SEPAM and Burt, DEC it was Ken Olsen, DEC’s founder, chairman and CEO famously telling those engineers with the TV-sized computer in 1977: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”.

  10. SecretEuroPatentAgentMan

    DEC? With the PDP?

  11. DEC – pretty good legacy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *